08/05/2005 12:00AM

For Zito, distance questions abound


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Nick Zito has faced three decisions this month about whether to go short or go long, and the score so far is 1-1 with the third still up in the air.

The first was what to do with Commentator, the 4-year-old gelding who ran a spectacular Beyer Speed Figure of 121 winning an overnight race at Belmont last month by 16 1/2 lengths. The choice was whether to bring Commentator back in the seven-furlong Vanderbilt Handicap on Aug. 13, where he would be no worse than co-favored with Forest Danger in an otherwise spotty lineup, or to try stretching him out a week earlier in the longer and richer Whitney against Saint Liam.

Zito chose the tougher spot, figuring that he had everything to gain if Commentator could stretch out and that he could always turn him back for the seven-furlong Forego on Sept. 3 if the experiment failed. It was a typically ambitious decision for Zito, who seems to thrive in such situations. People told him he had no shot against Smarty Jones in last year's Belmont with Birdstone coming off a five-week layoff, and even less chance with the same colt off a 12-week layoff into the Travers.

Birdstone gave Zito his first Belmont and Travers, rounding out a r?sum? that already included two Derbies, a Preakness, four Champagnes, and divisional championships with Storm Song and Bird Town. That cinched his overdue election to the Hall of Fame, where he will be inducted Monday, and brought up his second long-or-short decision of the meeting: How lengthy an acceptance speech to make? Rarely at a loss for more than a few words, Zito might have been expected to shut Monday morning's attendees out of the daily double if he began recapping his career and discoursing about favorite topics such as Brooklyn, the man upstairs, Strike the Gold, Albert the Great, patriotism, and equine charities.

This time, though, he swears he is going short, with just a few succinct paragraphs. Induction to the Hall has a way of softening up even the toughest tough guys, though, and no one will claim foul if he adds a furlong or two to his prepared remarks.

His third distance dilemma of the meet comes later in the meeting with Bellamy Road, who ran that amazing Wood Memorial back in April that earned a Beyer of 120 and made him the Derby favorite. Bellamy Road has not raced since fading to seventh on Derby Day but is back in training, and Zito thinks the colt is ready to confirm that the Wood was no mirage. The question is which Aug. 27 race to do it in: the $1 million Travers at a mile and a quarter or the $250,000 King's Bishop at seven furlongs.

It's as fascinating a choice as the one he faced with Commentator, and a lot tougher. It might seem a no-brainer to come back in the sprint, but the shorter race could be the tougher one this year with undefeated Lost in the Fog awaiting that spot. Roman Ruler faces the same choice, depending on how he handles two turns in Sunday's Haskell at Monmouth. Roman Ruler and Bellamy Road were both considered very likely for the King's Bishop when Afleet Alex was still pointing for the Travers, but the injury to the division's leader has everyone reconsidering his options.

The guess here is that Zito will keep it short here, too, and opt for the King's Bishop under the same nothing-to-lose thinking that made him go long with Commentator. Nobody is going to crucify Bellamy Road if he loses to Lost in the Fog, and he's a hero if he hands that colt his first defeat. Trying the Travers off a 16-week layoff is a little wild, even for the daring newest member of the Hall of Fame, but it's not impossible.

Equal in purses only

The Go for Wand, Test, King's Bishop, Hopeful, Ballerina, and Forego, all Grade 1 races, offer purses of $250,000. It doesn't seem quite right that this is no more than was on offer both Wednesday and Thursday for 3-year-olds in separate divisions of the New York Stallion Stakes.

Despite $500,000 in purse money, the two races for progeny of eligible New York stallions drew a total of just 13 runners, eight of them sired by just three state-based stallions: There were three A. P Jets, three Raffie's Majesties, and two Gold Tokens. The same horses would have shown up for purses of $75,000.